Former Transportation Secretary LaHood: ‘America is one big pothole’ — but it can be fixed

Ray LaHood, former secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation, speaks about improving public transportation to build livable communities during the Friday morning lecture in the Amphitheater. (Ruby Wallau | Staff Photographer)

Ray LaHood, former secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation, speaks about improving public transportation to build livable communities during the Friday morning lecture in the Amphitheater. (Ruby Wallau | Staff Photographer)

As Chautauquans prepare to navigate the roads and highways toward their respective homes, Ray LaHood devoted the final lecture of the 2015 season to America’s crumbling infrastructure and the measures government must take to avert — and reverse — the crisis.

Former U.S. secretary of transportation, LaHood served the Obama administration from 2009 to 2013, following 14 years as a congressman and 17 years as a congressional staffer. He currently serves as the co-chair for Building America’s Future Educational Fund.

Well-funded and planned transportation systems form the foundation on which a livable community is forged, according to LaHood. Even though exciting initiatives are underway in cities across America, LaHood said the future of transportation remains bleak unless federal funding is significantly reformed. That should distress anyone working toward Week Nine’s goal, “Creating Livable Communities,” he said.

LaHood offered a transportation-based definition to what those communities should look like. Foremost, they should provide equitable and affordable transportation choices for all citizens, regardless of class or occupation. Such communities should accommodate those at the fringes of life; children should be able to walk and bike to school, and elderly citizens unable to drive should be able to get to the doctor. Their layouts should reflect collaboration among urban planners and economic leaders.

If transportation follows these criteria, LaHood said, the rest will follow.

“You not only create the kind of atmosphere where people want to live, you create jobs,” he said. “You create economic opportunities. Every time you build a transit line, a streetcar line, a bus line, you create an economic corridor. People then begin to be attracted to those areas.”

He points to Dubuque, Iowa, as a particular success story. The city’s well-developed system of buses and bike paths, along with attractive mixed-use living, attracted IBM and 1,500 young employees to the city.

LaHood also took pride in the various bike-sharing programs he initiated, particularly that of Washington, D.C. During the annual Cherry Blossom Festival two years ago, he said every last bike was rented, proving his “if you build it, they will come” mantra.

Time and time again, people were overwhelmingly supportive of his department’s initiatives, he said.

To LaHood, the reason for that is simple.

“Not because Ray LaHood wanted it,” he said. “Not because Barack Obama wanted it. Because the people wanted it.”

But even these projects were only accomplished via the massive stimulus bill passed to stem economic losses in the early days of the Great Recession. All told, the federal government allocated $48 billion for transportation and infrastructure. Federal support for new transportation projects is now practically nonexistent, he said.

According to LaHood, America’s transportation future depends on a revised gas tax and a reformed Highway Trust Fund. The fund, which provides federal support for large infrastructure projects, is set to run out of money in the next year. Congress most recently extended a two-year funding bill that leaves states and municipalities unable to plan long-term projects in an uncertain funding climate. For this reason, LaHood called for a six-year funding bill and a 10-cent hike in the gas tax indexed to the cost of living.

That increase has a false reputation for being controversial — citizens overwhelmingly support new transportation projects, he said. Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton raised the gas tax. Fourteen states, including majority conservative states such as Utah and Wyoming, have raised their own gas taxes to compensate for lack of federal aid. Political posturing and obstruction have led to a stagnant gas tax since 1993.

LaHood, who served as a Republican representative from Illinois, said the federal gas tax that the Highway Trust Fund depends on must be raised unless Americans want to say goodbye to future growth.

“It’s the big pot of money that built America,” he said. “It’s the big pot of money that put a lot of Americans to work. It’s the big pot of money that has created the kind of economic development that communities have seen.”

The largest segment of unemployed workers are builders — those who build and maintain infrastructure, LaHood said. Investment in transportation puts those builders to work, and then others are hired to manage them. Eventually, small businesses such as convenience stores pop up along roadways, or companies such as IBM relocate along attractive transportation corridors. It’s a virtuous cycle that LaHood cites as the “easiest and the best way to get our economy going.”

In addition to maintaining the current quality of infrastructure, this debate is also about the future of transportation, LaHood said. High-speed rail is one such technology that could be the future of people-moving in America. It’s already a reality in countries around the world, and LaHood said there’s no reason why the U.S. cannot replicate their success.

“If you look at Japan, China, Europe — why do they have good trains?” LaHood said. “Because the national government invested in it.”

Still, these trains, which have potential to severely reduce road congestion and connect distant localities, face a tough road ahead. As LaHood noted, not one presidential candidate has mentioned transportation as part of their platform.

The people want it, but they need to want it louder, LaHood said. That means electing people who make infrastructure a priority, he said.

Repeating his famous “America is one big pothole” tagline, LaHood underscored how proper infrastructure supports growth in all other sectors. It’s step one in getting the country’s growth engine up and running, he said.

“We need to get America moving again,” LaHood said.